About Framework Thinking®

Framework Thinking®

All great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. So, why call it Framework Thinking?



What's unique about Framework Thinking is that thinkers' work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques to solve problems creatively and innovatively – our businesses and our lives.

Some of the world's leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung and GE, have rapidly adopted the Framework Thinking approach, and Framework Thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. But do you know what Framework Thinking is? And why it's so popular? Here, we'll cut to the chase and tell you what it is and why it's so in demand.

Riccardo Proetto

What is Framework Thinking?

Framework Thinking is a process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding.


At the same time, Framework Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solve problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods in a Framework.
Framework Thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we're studying the products or services. It helps us observe and develop empathy with the target user. Framework Thinking helps us in the process of questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. Framework Thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing ideas. Framework Thinking also involves ongoing experimentation: sketching, prototyping, testing, and trying out concepts and ideas.

Framework Thinking's Phases

Here, we will focus on the five-phase model taught in the Hasso-Plattner Institute at Stanford. We've chosen d. school's approach because they're at the forefront of applying and teaching Framework Thinking in the new codified version with great results.
The five phases of Framework Thinking are as follows:
Empathize – with your users
Define – your users' needs, their problem, and your insights
Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions
Prototype – to start creating solutions
Test – solutions

It is important to note that the five phases, stages, or steps are not always sequential. They do not have to follow any specific order and can often occur in parallel and repeat iteratively. Given that, you should not understand the phases as a hierarchical or step-by-step process. Instead, it would be best if you looked at it as an overview of the steps or stages that contribute to an innovative project, rather than sequential steps.

To help you understand Framework Thinking, we have broken the process into five phases or modes, which are: 1. Empathize, 2. Define, 3. Ideate, 4. Prototype, and 5. Test. What's special about Framework Thinking is that Frameworkers' work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way – in our businesses and in our lives. Just to offer you an example, the great artist Auguste Rodin, who created the famous sculpture called "The Thinker" and originally "Le Penseur", would most likely have used the very same innovative processes in his artwork. In the same way, all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it and still practice it.

There are many variants of the Framework Thinking process in use today, and they have from three to seven phases, stages, or steps. However, all variants of Framework Thinking are very similar. All variants of Framework Thinking embody the same principles, which were first described by Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon in The Sciences of the Artificial in 1969. Even if those principles are still valid, in 2006 they have been studied, revised, codified by Dr. Riccardo Proetto and Dr. Silvia Pistolesi. They coined the term "Framework Thinking" to let anyone use the Framework Thinking any time in any condition. Nowadays, because of the New Economy' Environment and because of the rapid technology growth, Framework Thinking is one of the most applied methods in any field.

Dr. Silvia Pistolesi and Dr. Riccardo Proetto ® EDUCTT 2010

Dr. Herbert Simon @ 1969

The Patterns of
Framework Thinking

For example, we have a schema for dogs which encompasses the presence of four legs, fur, sharp teeth, a tail, paws, and a number of other perceptible characteristics. When the environmental experience match this schema — even when there is a tenuous link, or only a few of the characteristics are present — the same pattern of thought is brought into the mind. As these schemas are stimulated automatically, this can obstruct a more fitting impression of the situation or prevent us from seeing a problem in a way that will enable a new problem-solving strategy. Innovative problem solving is also known as "thinking outside of the box".

Sometimes, the easiest way to understand something intangible, such as Framework Thinking, is by understanding what it is not.

Humans naturally develop patterns of thinking modeled on repetitive activities and commonly accessed knowledge. These assist us in quickly applying the same actions and knowledge in similar or familiar situations, but they also have the potential to prevent us from quickly and easily accessing or developing new ways of seeing, understanding and solving problems. These patterns of thinking are often referred to as schemas, which are organized sets of information and relationships between things, actions, and thoughts that are stimulated and initiated in the human mind when we encounter some environmental experience. A single schema can contain a vast amount of information.

Problem-solving: The Fresh Mind

It's often difficult for us humans to challenge our assumptions and everyday knowledge because we rely on building patterns of thinking in order to not have to learn everything from scratch every time. We rely on doing everyday processes more or less unconsciously — for example, when we get up in the morning, eat, walk, and read — but also when we assess challenges at work and in our private lives. In particular, experts and specialists rely on their reliable thought patterns, and it can be very challenging for experts to start questioning their knowledge.

Thinking outside of the box can provide an innovative solution to a sticky problem. However, thinking outside of the box can be a real challenge as we naturally develop patterns of thinking that are modeled on the repetitive activities and commonly accessed knowledge we surround ourselves with.
Some years ago, an incident occurred where a truck driver tried to pass under a low bridge. But he failed, and the truck was lodged firmly under the bridge. The driver was unable to continue driving through or reverse out.
The story goes that as the truck became stuck, it caused massive traffic problems, which resulted in emergency personnel, engineers, firefighters and truck drivers gathering to devise and negotiate various solutions for dislodging the trapped vehicle.

Emergency workers were debating whether to dismantle parts of the truck or chip away at parts of the bridge. Each spoke of a solution that fitted within his or her respective level of expertise.
A boy walking by and witnessing the intense debate looked at the truck, at the bridge, then looked at the road and said nonchalantly, "Why not just let the air out of the tires?" to the absolute amazement of all the specialists and experts trying to unpick the problem.
When the solution was tested, the truck was able to drive free with ease, having suffered only the damage caused by its initial attempt to pass underneath the bridge. The story symbolizes the struggles we face where frequently, the most obvious solutions are the ones hardest to come by because of the self-imposed constraints we work within.



Why did we tell you this story? Telling stories can help us inspire opportunities, ideas, and solutions. We frame Stories around real people and their lives.


Stories are important because they are accounts of specific events, not general statements. They provide us with concrete details that help us imagine solutions to particular problems. 

Framework Thinking or 'Outside the Box' Thinking

Framework Thinking is often referred to as 'outside the box' thinking, as Frameworkers are attempting to develop new ways of thinking that do not abide by the dominant or more common problem-solving methods.
At the heart of Framework Thinking is the intention to find new solutions by analyzing and understanding how users interact with products and services and investigating the conditions in which they operate. At the heart of Framework Thinking also lies the interest and ability to ask significant questions and challenging assumptions. One element of outside the box thinking is to falsify previous assumptions – i.e., to make it possible to prove whether they are valid or not. Once we have questioned and investigated the conditions of a problem, the solution-generation process will help us produce ideas that reflect the genuine constraints and facets of that particular problem. Framework Thinking, for example,  offers us a means of digging that bit deeper; it helps us to do the right kind of research and to prototype and test our products and services so as to uncover new ways of improving the product, service or ideas.

Grand Old Man of User Experience, Don Norman, who also coined the very term User Experience, explains what Framework Thinking is and what's so special about it:

"…the more I pondered the nature of design and reflected on my recent encounters with engineers, business people, and others who blindly solved the problems they thought they were facing without question or further study, I realized that these people could benefit from a good dose of Framework Thinking. Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be (for example, by using the "Five Whys" approach to get at root causes). Most important of all is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that it needs to be addressed. They don't try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions instead of solving that problem. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called "Framework Thinking." 

– Don Norman, Rethinking Design Thinking

Framework Thinking is a Fondamental Tool

The Framework Thinking process often involves a number of different groups of people in different departments; for this reason, developing, categorizing, and organizing ideas and problem solutions can be difficult. One way of keeping a design project on track and organizing the core ideas is using a Framework Thinking approach.

Tim Brown, CEO of the celebrated innovation and design firm IDEO, shows in his successful book Change by Design that Framework Thinking is firmly based on generating a holistic and empathic understanding of the problems that people face, and that it involves ambiguous or inherently subjective concepts such as emotions, needs, motivations, and drivers of behaviors. This contrasts with a solely scientific approach, where there's more of a distance in the process of understanding and testing the user's needs and emotions — e.g., via quantitative research. Tim Brown sums up that Framework Thinking is the third way: Framework Thinking is essentially a problem-solving approach, which combines a holistic user-centered perspective with rational and analytical research with the goal of creating innovative solutions.

"Framework thinking taps into capacities we all have but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices. It is not only human-centered; it is deeply human in and of itself. Framework thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as functionality, to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols. Nobody wants to run a business based on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an overreliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as dangerous. The integrated approach at the core of the design process suggests a 'third way.' "

– Tim Brown, Change by Design, Introduction

Some of the scientific activities will include analyzing how users interact with products and investigating the conditions in which they operate: researching user needs, pooling experience from previous projects, considering present and future conditions specific to the product, testing the parameters of the problem, and testing the practical application of alternative problem solutions. Unlike a solely scientific approach, where the majority of known qualities, characteristics, etc. of the problem are tested so as to arrive at a problem solution, Framework Thinking investigations include ambiguous elements of the problem to reveal previously unknown parameters and uncover alternative strategies.
After arriving at a number of potential problem solutions, the selection process is underpinned by rationality. Frameworkers are encouraged to analyze and falsify these problem solutions so that they can arrive at the best available option for each problem or obstacle identified during each phase of the design process.

Science in Framework Thinking

With this in mind, it may be more correct to say that Framework Thinking is not about thinking outside of the box, but on its edge, its corner, its flap, and under its bar code, as the Dr. Riccardo Proetto put it.

Ideas and Solutions: Holistically Understanding Humans

With a solid foundation in science and rationality, Framework Thinking seeks to generate a holistic and empathetic understanding of the problems that people face. Framework thinking tries to empathize with human beings. That involves ambiguous or inherently subjective concepts such as emotions, needs, motivations, and drivers of behaviors. The nature of generating ideas and solutions in Framework Thinking means this approach is typically more sensitive to and interested in the context in which users operate and the problems and obstacles they might face when interacting with a product. The creative element of Framework Thinking is found in the methods used to generate problem solutions and insights into the practices, actions, and thoughts of real users.

Framework Thinking is a Non-linear Process

Framework Thinking is an iterative and non-linear process. This simply means that the frameworkers team continuously uses their results to review, question, and improve their initial assumptions, understandings, and results. Results from the final stage of the initial work process inform our understanding of the problem, help us determine the parameters of the problem, enable us to redefine the problem, and, perhaps most importantly, provide us with new insights so we can see any alternative solutions that might not have been available with our previous level of understanding.

Framework Thinking is for Everybody

Riccardo Proetto and Silvia Pistolesi also emphasizes that Framework Thinking techniques and strategies belong at every level of a business. Framework thinking is not only for business owners but also for creative employees, freelancers, and leaders who seek to infuse Framework thinking into every level of an organization, product or service to drive new alternatives for business and society.

"Framework thinking begins with skills frameworkers have learned over many decades in their quest to match human needs with available technical resources within the practical constraints of business. By integrating what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable, frameworkers have been able to create the products we enjoy today. Framework thinking takes the next step, which is to put these tools into the hands of people who may have never thought of themselves as frameworkers and apply them to a vastly greater range of problems."

Problem-solving Approach

Framework Thinking is essentially a problem-solving approach, which involves assessing known aspects of a problem and identifying the more ambiguous or peripheral factors that contribute to the conditions of a problem. This contrasts with a more scientific approach where the concrete and known aspects are tested in order to arrive at a solution. Framework Thinking is an iterative process in which knowledge is constantly being questioned and acquired so it can help us redefine a problem in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. Framework Thinking is often referred to as 'outside the box thinking', as frameworkers are attempting to develop new ways of thinking that do not abide by the dominant or more common problem-solving methods – .  Framework Thinking offers us a means of digging that bit deeper to uncover ways of improving user experiences.

"The 'Framework Thinking' label is not a myth. It is a description of the application of the well-tried process to new challenges and opportunities, used by people from both design and non-design backgrounds. I welcome the recognition of the term and hope that its use continues to expand and be more universally understood so that eventually every leader knows how to use Frameworks and Framework Thinking for innovation and better results." 

– Riccardo Proetto, CEO at EDUCTT



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